This page gives details of the ruling by the Planning Inspectorate in the appeal by Europa Oil and Gas against refusal of planning permission for exploratory drilling at Bury Hill Wood in Surrey. Our report on the appeal result.
Development in the Green Belt
The Inspector, Stuart Nixon, said he had to decide whether the scheme amounted to inappropriate development in the Green Belt. And if so, whether the harm would be outweighed by special circumstances that justified the development.
He said the local development plan policy MC3 appeared to suggest that for mineral developments only extraction and primary treatment constituted appropriate development. Because the plan was for exploration and appraisal this would apparently, be inappropriate development in the Green Belt.
But Mr Nixon said this policy had been overtaken by a judgement in the High Court on the plans in 2013. This ruled that exploration and appraisal of minerals must be treated as part of the extraction process. They would be inappropriate only if they adversely affected the openness of the Green Belt.
He said the drilling rig and equipment would compromise openness of the Green Belt for the period of the development. But because the operation was for 18 weeks, the longer-term harm to the permanence of the Green Belt would be negligible. The impact on openness would be short-term, he said.
The Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
“Major” development The Inspector had to decide whether the site constituted “major development”.
Paragraph 116 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) restricts development in AONBs if it is considered “major”. In cases of “major development”, applicants have to prove their project is in the public interest and there are exceptional circumstances to justify it.
Mr Dixon said he did not consider the application to be major because the site was under 1ha, would be temporary and “very short term”. He said the requirements of Paragraph 116 therefore did not apply.
Impact on landscape and natural beauty The inquiry looked at the effect of the plans on the landscape and natural beauty of the AONB and public’s appreciation of it.
It heard that the Surrey Hills were one of England’s fines landscapes, which attracted millions of visitors every year. Coalharbour Lane, the proposed lorry route to the site, is an example of a sunken lane.
Paragraphs 109, 115 and 123 of the NPPF seek to protect valued landscapes, including AONBs. Surrey County Council argued there would be an adverse effect on the AONB. But the company argued that the level of intrusion would be low, temporary, short-term and reversible.
The inspector said: “With the best will in the world, it would be impossible to disguise the site or the activity when passing close by or using the Lane at certain times.”
But he said further afield, the impact would reduce rapidly with distance. The 35m drilling rig would be visible from some important vantage points but in most cases only the top of the rig would be visible.
He said there would be a significant impact on users of Coldharbour Lane and people living nearby during construction and reinstatement.
“I am in no doubt that the adverse effects on the landscape and natural beauty of the AONB and on the public appreciation and enjoyment are negative factors for the duration of the contract and must be weighed in the overall planning balance.”
But he said he said the harm would be reversible and a similar impact could have resulted from forestry operations.
Sites outside the AONB The inspector also had to decide whether the plans could reasonably be located outside the AONB.
Mr Dixon said sites outside the AONB would not intercept the Portland and Corallian Sandstone layers with one borehole. Two boreholes would increase the length of the project, as well as the costs and harm.
The company estimated there would be 1,100 lorry movements during construction and dismantling the site. Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) would travel in convoys of two or three and be held before entering the site on the A24 and in Knoll Road, a residential street in Dorking.
The inspector said lorry movements would “not go unnoticed”. But he said they would be spread over 12 weeks with a maximum of 30 movements in any single day. They would enter and leave the site outside peak hours, he said. He said disturbance to residents was likely to be “transitory”. He also envisaged no safety problems, despite residents’ concerns about the increased use of local roads by cyclists.
Consistency with government policy
The company claimed the potential oil in the Holmwood Prospect was the fifth largest onshore reserve in the UK. But opponents said this would satisfy UK needs for only two-four days.
The inspector said: “I am in no doubt that the exploration of the potential resource accords with government’s encouraging policies for investigating and winning onshore oil and gas.
The inspector said concerns about the impact on ecology, light pollution, hydrology and the local economy were small “negative elements” but did not “add great weight against the exploratory project”.